By Lynn Venhaus

Clayton Community Theatre was the big winner at this year’s Arts For Life’s fifth annual Theatre Mask Awards, taking the top prizes for both Outstanding Production of a Comedy  – “Biloxi Blues” – and Outstanding Production of a Drama – “A Soldier’s Play.” Combined, the two plays won eight awards.

The 2020 Theatre Mask Awards, honoring excellence in community theatre productions of dramas and comedies during 2019, included winners in 18 non-musical play categories. Nine community theater companies throughout the St. Louis Metropolitan region, including three counties in the metro-east, participate in the TMAs.

This year’s event was a pre-recorded virtual presentation online on Saturday, July 18, instead of the usual brunch because of the coronavirus pandemic. Originally scheduled for April 4, the TMAs were moved to mid-July, then ultimately cancelled because of the public health emergency and the gathering restrictions in St. Louis County.

Melissa Boyer and Tim Naegelin, members of the TMA Steering Committee and the Arts For Life board of directors, were the co-hosts. Brant McCance was the tech and video coordinator.

“We were able to still provide an opportunity for our local arts community to come together online and celebrate the many outstanding achievements of the previous year,” said AFL President Mary McCreight.

Clayton Community Theatre, formed in 1998, also was honored for Outstanding Large Ensemble for “Biloxi Blues,” and Director Sam Hack. It was back-to-back wins for their Eugene Trilogy by Neil Simon. In 2018, they won comedy production and direction for “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” The second play in Simon’s semi-autobiographical series won five awards overall.

Two “Biloxi Blues” actors were recognized – Michael Bouchard for Lead Actor and Sam Guillemette for Supporting Actor in a Comedy.

“A Soldier’s Play” won three, including Nada Vaughn for Director of a Drama and Nathan Schroeder for Lighting Design of a Play. Schroeder was a previous winner for “Macbeth” in 2015.

Clayton Community Theatre had notched 24 nominations — “Biloxi Blues” (13), “A Soldier’s Play” (10) and “Eurydice” (1). CCT also broke a record for having the most acting nominations from a single show – 8 for “Biloxi Blues.”

Other multiple award winners included Act Two Theatre, two for “Plaza Suite” – Amanda McMichael for Lead Actress in a Comedy and Jean Heckmann for Costume Design of a Play; Monroe Actors Stage Company for “It’s a Wonderful Life” – Sarah Polizzi for Supporting Actress and Randy Manning for Supporting Actor in a Drama; and Theatre Guild of Webster Groves won two – Matthew Linhardt for Lead Actor in Drama as McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and Anna Drake as Outstanding Juvenile Performer for ‘The Bad Seed.”

O’Fallon TheatreWorks won two for “The Miracle Worker” – Kaylee Ryan for Lead Actress in a Drama as Helen Keller and Chris and Ellie Lanham for Outstanding Set Design of a Play, which they have won two previous times – in 2016 for “The Diary of Anne Frank” and in 2018 for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Awards went to Alton Little Theater for Outstanding Small Ensemble in a Play – “A Twisted Christmas Carol” and Looking Glass Playhouse for Supporting Actress in a Comedy – Pam Boker in “Peter and the Starcatcher.”

The Theatre Guild of Webster Groves had led all area community theaters with 27 nominations.

Special Achievement Awards went to Alton Little Theater for “Vintage Voices” and Hawthorne Players for “Voices of Valhalla: Hayrides through History,” both unique applications of theater that take place in the fall around Halloween. Each theater troupe presents stories of the people buried in local cemeteries.

The 40-minute awards video is available on the AFL You Tube channel: https://youtu.be/5Peni8T5UA8

AFL had previously announced the switch to virtual for the Best Performance Awards, which honors musical theater and youth productions. That ceremony was streamed Sunday, June 14, at 2 p.m. on the AFL YouTube channel.

TMA winners have an opportunity to send an acceptance speech to AFL, and it will be posted on social media.

For the groups who have not picked up their trophies, please contact Mary McCreight at [email protected]

To see a complete list of the nominees and winners for both TMAs and BPAs, visit the website: www.artsforlife.org

“As our world, our nation and our region face a major health threat, it falls upon us as a community to adopt measures that will both foster the protection of those who work and ‘play’ in Metro St. Louis community theatre and ultimately allow AFL to continue our charitable mission of service and recognition once the threat passes,” McCreight added.

McCreight said AFL appreciates the support shown during these difficult times.

“I am incredibly grateful to all of our constituencies – the board, judges, participating groups, audience members and donors – for their commitment to AFL and their engagement and unwavering support of our local theatre community during these uncertain times,” McCreight said.

AFL was founded in 1994 by Lucinda Gyurci as a local non-profit organization dedicated to the healing power of the arts through its work with youth, the under-served and the community. The BPAs have honored musical theater since 1999 and the TMAs have honored plays since 2015.

“We hope that you and your loved ones stay safe during this difficult time,” McCreight said. “Because of your commitment to our community and belief in our mission, my optimism is not diminished about AFL being able to move forward once this unprecedented time passes.” 

For more information, contact AFL TRG Secretary Kim Klick at [email protected]

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By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Oh, that puppy love. American playwright A.R. Gurney’s absurd comedy “Sylvia” presents
a marital conflict caused by a pretty pooch. In this case, the mutt takes on
human form and talks in perfect English. To buy into the conceit is to believe
the female fur child in its interaction with her male best friend, and it’s apparent
they are a tad too close.

That’s the premise in this drawing-room comedy, originally set in the 1980s, which first appeared off-Broadway in 1995, starred Matthew Broderick and Annaleigh Ashford in a limited Broadway engagement in 2015 and has become a favorite of adventurous theater troupes and dog lovers everywhere.

In Stray Dog Theatre’s production, energetic Susie Lawrence is expressive as the preening and prancing puppy that Greg takes a shine to in NYC’s Central Park. Wearing knee pads and modern girlie outfits, Sylvia — the name’s on her tag — happily makes herself at home in an Upper West Side apartment where an empty-nest couple have started the second chapter of their life, now that the kids are grown.

Kate and Greg are a cookie-cutter WASP pair, married 22 years. Likeable Kay Love and Tim Naegelin are the longtime married couple whose relationship begins to unravel when the dog comes between them. Is he just going through a mid-life crisis or does the obsession signal more? It could be construed as a romantic triangle on the icky side.

The trouble with the husband and wife characters is that
they’re bland. And there is not much to like about the generic one-note Kate,
who is back to work teaching and working on a master’s degree in English. Irritated
the minute she’s introduced, Kate takes an immediate dislike to the dog and
tried to veto it becoming part of the family. She refers to the dog as Saliva,
which is no longer funny after the first reference.
Greg appears adrift and gains no sympathy as he does nothing to repair things
with his wife. He has lost his mojo as a financial analyst after the kids left.
He doesn’t much like his job, quarrels with his boss, and starts spending more
and more time doting on Sylvia. Playing with a dog outdoors is healthy for all,
right?

Well, not exactly, because the affection becomes creepy when Greg would rather be with the flirty dog than with humans. And it’s the only time vanilla Greg lights up.

Kate doesn’t ring true about her all-consuming hatred of the dog right away, while Greg’s bizarre behavior would alarm a therapist much quicker than when he eventually gets to one. Kate’s aggravation at the dog should grow as Sylvia chews shoes, sheds all over the couch, leaves puddles and encroaches on her personal space. The exasperation needed to build, not be at the same level as the beginning.

Photo by John LambAs the therapist in the second act, a New Age eccentric named Leslie who purposely does not want to be defined by any gender, Melissa Harlow is a hoot – and the visual sight gag of her tacky velour purple top and gold-print black palazzo pants is as amusing as her goofy accent, not unlike Martin Short as the wedding planner in “Father of the Bride.”

In fact, with her comic flair Harlow steals the whole shebang portraying three characters, two in the first act. Experienced at interactive comedy shows and mystery dinner theater where she works in St. Louis, she is the breakout star here.

Melissa Harlow and Kay Love. Photo by John Lamb

Laugh-out-loud funny as Phyllis, a typical but high-strung socialite who becomes unnerved by Sylvia’s over-enthusiastic greeting, Harlow had the audience howling as she became more agitated and unglued. The gifted comic actress recalls the classic sketches on “The Carol Burnett Show” or “Saturday Night Live.”

Her first character, Tom, is a ‘bro,’ a guy in the park who shares way too much information with Greg about interpersonal relationships and dog psychology.

Harlow is believable as all three – and it’s customary for one person to play them all. She brightened every scene she’s in, for as two acts progress in nearly two and a half hours, the play gets repetitive and somewhat tedious. Gurney could have tied everything up in a one-act because basically it’s an extended one-joke play and drags getting to its predictable conclusion.

Because she’s so animated, Lawrence is in contrast with the dull couple. That’s why Harlow’s antics are such a bright spot as well.

In the larger picture, Gurney, famous for his piercing look at the privileged Manhattanites in such works as “The Cocktail Hour” and “The Dining Room,” is making a bigger statement about humans’ desperate need to connect in an impersonal world, even if it’s with an animal.

Now that rings true. Gurney, whose best-known play is “Love Letters,” inexplicably falls back on tired clichés. The play could have benefited from more biting wit and frank social analysis.

Director Gary F. Bell has updated its time, now in 2000. He makes use of the Tower Grove Abbey’s small confines well, allowing frisky Lawrence to scamper about in scenic designer Miles Bledsoe’s suitable living quarters interior, with interesting skyline pieces as background.

Without opening up the play, it could be claustrophic. The outdoor scenes help change the scenery.

Bell dedicated the show to his own canine companion, Oliver Ogden Bell, and includes some choice quotes in the program as director’s notes, including this gem from John Steinbeck: “I’ve seen a  look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.”

No one is credited with sound, but the selection of music interludes is always pitch-perfect, whether it was Bell or Associate Artistic Director Justin Been. Use of the Cole Porter song, “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” which is included with the script, is a lovely rendition because the cast has good voices.

If you are a ‘dog person,’ you might not mind the contrasts in tone, or the depicted fantasy. “Sylvia” is one of those plays that divides people, depending on their point of view. The cast and crew put forth a terrific effort, but to me, the playwright barks up the wrong tree.

Tim Naegelin and Susie Laawrence. Photo by John LambStray Dog Theatre presented “Sylvia” June 6 –
June 22 at the Tower Grove Abbey. For more information about the professional
theater troupe and their new season, which starts in August, visit
www.straydogtheatre.org